Concern about water management and high input costs prompted Dumas, Texas, farmer David Ford to look into incorporating conservation strategies into his operation. After much study, implementing a conservation tillage system seemed to be a good way to reduce labor and fuel costs.

Brothers David and Donald Ford are the fourth generation of their family to farm in the Texas Panhandle. After 34 years in the business the partnership has grown to include five generations of farmers working the land in interests known as: D&D Farms, 3F Farms and DDK Farms.

David is president of the Corn Producers’ Association of Texas. He and his wife, Vicki, with their son, Kevin, operate a cow/calf business and manage about 4,000 acres of crop land near Dumas, located on the Ogallala Aquifer.

The Ogallala has kept many farmers in business from the Western Texas Panhandle to South Dakota, and helped feed and clothe families across America. But the water in the Ogallala Aquifer is diminishing because of widespread irrigation use in the High Plains states.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) have created programs to help increase efficiency in irrigation, which has helped to slow the rate of water level decline.

Many farmers have installed center pivot or drip irrigation systems that can achieve a 95 percent or better water use efficiency. While this goes a long way towards conserving water resources in the Ogallala Aquifer, some farmers are adapting their farming methods even further to become more water efficient — as are the Fords.

In addition to fuel savings, the strip till system the Fords settled on cut both irrigation costs and water usage. They have seen more than a 20 percent reduction in water usage since they switched to strip till.

With average rainfall about 18 inches per year, moisture is Ford’s limiting factor and strip-tillage is the best method he’s found to help keep moisture in the soil.

“Acquiring good land management skills and patience is critical to the success of strip till farming.” Ford says. “It’s not easy at first, but if you stick with it, it will pay off. In the first couple of years I saw a big difference in water holding capacity and (reduced) runoff on my fields.”

Eliminating full-width tillage allows the soil to regain structure, increasing porosity for better water infiltration. Earthworm populations have increased significantly, creating a mellow soil and reducing compaction. Increased water infiltration means rainfall and irrigation water move into the soil where plants are able to use the moisture.

Conservation tillage also results in greater soil water holding capacity. Maintaining crop residues and organic matter help the soil hold water instead of losing it to evaporation or runoff.

Ford says he was initially impressed with the changes in soil condition, but he didn’t see production yields he expected. However, as he continued to work toward his goal to convert to strip till methods, he began to regain crop yields and increase production.

“The soil had to have time to improve physical, chemical, and biological health components,” he says.

That’s often the case for producers switching to a different tillage system. It can take three to five years for producers to quantify the benefits of a conservation tillage system and get the kinks worked out.

With patience and persistence, Ford accomplished his goal. “I’m saving water and utilizing it better. Last year (under more normal rainfall conditions) I applied 20 inches versus 26 inches of irrigation for the year and averaged a 260 bushel corn crop,” he says.

Ford’s strip-tillage system involves tilling a narrow strip where the seed is planted, usually less than 30 percent of the row width, which leaves most of the field undisturbed. This produces a clean seedbed that warms faster and is easier to plant while maintaining good residue cover on the rest of the field.

Since tillage is largely eliminated, Ford relies on herbicides and crop rotation to help control weeds.

He insists that it’s all a learning curve and they continually try to improve management. Equipment changes have presented some challenges too.

Technology advancements have been instrumental to Ford in implementing strip till farming. He installed Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance and Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) auto-steer on his equipment that allows him to plant precisely in the middle of his tilled strips. “Without the technology available today, I would not have been able to move my operation to strip till,” he says. “Auto-steer is a necessity.”

Better nutrient management is another benefit of strip till. Ford applies half of his phosphorus with his strip till rig and the other half with his planter. This allows him to place phosphorus where plant roots can get to it, which may contribute to increased yields.

Ford also applies nitrogen through his pivots systems, which provides needed fertilizer over the top of his crops. He takes soil samples every year in the fall to check plant-available nutrient levels in the soil and set his fertilizer application rates.

He also experimented with tissue sampling. The tissue analysis provides an indication of the nutrient status of his crop and helps him meet yield goals without unnecessary fertilizer applications. These strategies help reduce or eliminate wasting increasingly expensive commercial fertilizer and improve water quality.

Ford contacted the NRCS about re-nozzling packages for some of his center pivot sprinkler systems. He wanted to replace nozzles for more efficient water delivery, dropping nozzles closer to the ground and into the canopy of his crops.

“I applied for EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] and received cost-share assistance for eight of my pivots,” Ford says. For additional pivot sprinkler upgrades, he made the change at his own cost when EQIP funding was not available.

As a result of all of the conservation measures he implemented, Ford reduced irrigation costs because he’s using less irrigation for production.

Currently, it’s costing him $10 per acre inch, or about $200 per acre for irrigation where conventional methods were averaging approximately $260 per acre. That’s possible because of increased infiltration and water holding capacity from strip till in addition to the increased efficiency from his sprinkler system upgrades.

“Inputs are driving producers to consider more conservation practices,” Ford says. “I wanted to make my business more efficient and profitable, and I have done that by using strip-tillage.

“It’s definitely a long-term commitment, and it requires more intensive management, but the economic and environmental benefits make the extra effort worth it for our operation. I don’t get paid on what I talk about at the coffee shop; I get paid on what I do in the field.”